Steep terrain limits options

By Marcy Stamper

The Gilbert Fire continued to grow on Thursday, although it was a “fairly benign day,” said Shelby Erickson, the division supervisor for the 16-person Type 3 Incident Management Team from Arizona handling the fire.

Erickson was one of a dozen fire managers, elected officials and emergency managers who briefed 400 people on at a public information meeting about the fire in Twisp on Thursday night (Aug. 2).

The fire, burning in extremely steep and rugged terrain 21 miles west of Twisp, was estimated at 6,000 acres on Friday morning. That growth was considerably more moderate than the explosion between Wednesday and Thursday, when the fire surged from 250 acres to 4,500 acres in just 24 hours. On Wednesday, there were spot fires up to 2 miles from the main blaze, according to the incident commander.

The effect of strong winds on the fire, which is burning on extremely dry and thickly forested slopes, was underscored by the fire’s exponential growth. The Gilbert Fire was 1/2 acre on Monday and 225 acres on Tuesday morning before exploding to 4,500 acres. The fire moved 4 miles in a day, and it could happen again in strong-enough winds, said Erickson.

Despite the rapid growth, because the terrain is too steep for firefighters to work safely to combat the blaze directly, they are focusing on containing spot fires and preparing residences on upper Twisp River Road in case the fire moves further down the drainage. Terrain and smoke have made it hard to use aircraft for water drops.

“Gilbert and Crescent are in such steep country that we haven’t been able to do much in terms of control, but we can look toward structure protection and evacuations,” the incident commander told the community Thursday night.

The fire is burning primarily on the south side of the Twisp River at the end of Twisp River Road. Although officially named the Gilbert Fire, it is actually two separate fires, with the most active one – on the south – actually called the Crescent Fire. The Gilbert Fire, which is burning near the summit of Gilbert Mountain north of the road, is still fairly small, its spread thus far slowed by steep, rocky ridges with little fuel.

The Crescent Fire is on the lower third of the slope, meaning it’s exposed to wind all day, said Matt Ellis, fire management officer with the Methow Valley Ranger District. Still, fire managers expect the two fires to merge. “Gilbert is going to move,” said Erickson.

The calmer fire activity on Thursday was attributed in part to the fact that the fire was burning in an old scar from the Reynolds Creek Fire. Fire mangers expect that fire intensity will pick up again when the fire moves into Reynolds Creek, he said.

Prepping private property

Fire crews have focused on extinguishing spot fires and on keeping the fire on the south side of the road. They are using a Forest Service road on the south side of the Twisp River as much as possible as a fire break, although in some places the fire has crossed that road and the river and burned to Forest Service Road 4440, the continuation of Twisp River Road.

Fire crews have been assessing structures on Twisp River Road, mostly west of Buttermilk. “People up Buttermilk were so overwhelmed with gratitude when they got to their cabin” and saw the work that had been done, said Laurie Dowie, a public information officer for the fire.

Area residents should be doing those same things to make their homes and property as defensible as possible if the fire moves into settled areas in the Twisp River drainage. Although typical wind patterns would most likely push the fire down that drainage, it could spread in other directions, they said.

Fire crews have used three helicopters for water drops as conditions permit. At times, it has been too smoky to fly planes safely. “Even if it was magic stuff, we can’t see on the ground where to drop it,” said Erickson.

Retardant wouldn’t help because it isn’t effective without firefighters on the ground, and the terrain and conditions make that unsafe, said Ellis. Moreover, the terrain is so steep that even if firefighters were able to build a fire line, burning material would roll down the hill and ignite a new fire, he said.

Fire managers have set two action points for the fire between the road’s end and Buttermilk, about 11 miles west of Twisp. If it nears those boundaries, it could trigger more evacuations and assistance from other fire agencies. At present, there is a Level 2 evacuation order (be prepared to leave) for people west of Buttermilk.

Bigger fire team

Because of the complexity of the fire, the Arizona team ordered a Type 1 team, which is due Friday afternoon. They will be briefed by the Arizona team before taking over Saturday morning.

The Type 1 team is expected to have about 60 people handling overhead and logistics, including incident commanders. Once they have assessed the situation and prepared a plan of attack, they will order resources as needed, said Dowie.

It can take from one to several days for new resources to arrive and getting more crews depends on availability. In the meantime, they can extend other crews as necessary so that there is continuous coverage on the fire, said Dowie.

Pointing to severe fires in California and elsewhere in the West, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said, “We have to respect the fact that there are other things going on out there.”

Until the Type 1 team assesses the situation, there is no way of knowing what strategy they will use to tackle the fire, said Dowie. The Twisp River drainage is narrow with lots of side drainages and steep slopes and ridges, making for complicated terrain, she said.

“If they don’t have the right conditions, they can’t put people in dangerous situations. They wait till there’s an opportunity to put people safely in,” said Dowie.

Caused by lightning

The Crescent and Gilbert fires were ignited by a lightning storm on Saturday (July 28). Although the storm made about 150 strikes throughout the Methow Valley Ranger District, there were just three fire starts, said Ellis. The third fire started by that storm, the Cutthroat Fire near Washington Pass, was detected first and was considered to have the greatest chance of spreading because of weather and terrain, said Ellis.

Fire managers attacked the Cutthroat blaze with nine smokejumpers and water drops from aircraft on Sunday. It was declared 100-percent contained at 25 acres earlier this week. Thirty firefighters from the local ranger district are still assigned to the fire, primarily doing mop-up, said Dowie.

The Crescent and Gilbert fires were discovered later that day and four smokejumpers were dropped on each one. Crescent was “doing well” Monday morning, but winds on Tuesday accelerated fire activity. The smokejumpers were pulled out of the area on Tuesday when winds and terrain made it too dangerous, said Ellis. “The smokejumpers did a great job, but they got their butts kicked,” said Erickson.

The Arizona team was brought in on Tuesday to combat both fires while fire crews from the Methow Valley Ranger District worked on the Cutthroat Fire.

After a cold front with windy conditions on Friday (Aug. 3), temperatures are forecast to rise again, but winds are expected to be calm, which could provide five or six days of more-favorable conditions, said Ellis. “By no means are we letting this thing burn without taking any action,” he said.

Staying informed

Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall urged all community members to sign up for emergency alerts through the county’s system at http://okanogandem.org. Click on the outline map of Okanogan County that says “Alert System.”

People who want to be notified about all incidents throughout the county can text “OKCOUNTY” TO 888777. They can also text ZIP codes to that number for particular towns if they want information about incidents in those areas only.

Goodall reminded residents that there are not enough emergency personnel to knock on every door to notify people of an evacuation, so people need to be aware of conditions and be ready to leave.

The Okanogan County Electric Co-operative notified its customers on Friday that power could be shut down without a warning to protect firefighters, and that outages could be prolonged.

Both nationally and regionally, the preparedness level is as high as it can go, meaning scarce resources are deployed to the fires that pose the greatest threat to life and property. If the fire keeps going east toward Twisp, it could get a higher priority in what the incident commander called “a weird chess game.”

“It’s really important to know that this fire in the Twisp River drainage can do something really quick. Make sure you have a plan,” Hover said.

Closures

Twisp River Road is closed from Buttermilk Road and west of there. All Twisp River trails are also closed. Fire managers also advise people not to use Little Bridge Creek and Thompson Ridge roads.

The Cutthroat Lake Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail from Rainy Pass to Snowy Lakes are still closed; as is the road to the Cutthroat Lake trailhead.